Speech: Boston Latin School Alumni Association

· Logos/Ethos

June 7, 2013

Thank you.

 It’s both a pleasure and an honor to speak to alumni of the BostonLatinSchool. It’s an institution that I have long admired.

It’s also an institution to which I would have had no chance whatsoever of attending had I tried; and one that actually had the opportunity to hire me as an English instructor on several occasions but decided that it was best not to acknowledge my query letters.

As of today I am letting go my disappointment and any lingering bitterness because at least one graduate, Brad Kent, has acknowledged both my existence and some degree of intellectual value.

In fact, thanks to Brad, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to Cape Alumni Associations of both the LatinSchool and Harvard. If any of my high school teachers are still alive and hear this, they will surely be laughing their asses off.

Excuse me for the mild profanity. It’s what I do.

Brad thought that you might be interested in hearing about my latest project and for that I’m grateful. So far, my wife hasn’t shown much interest.

I’m a playwright and for many years I have entertained the idea of writing a drama based on the life of an historical figure. A number of potential subjects crossed my mind –H.L Mencken and Ambrose Bierce were close runner-ups.

 Perhaps you can see a pattern. I am inexorably drawn to smart-alecks, especially those who demonstrate dexterity with and respect for the American language. They also share a common attraction to the mass of American people as nincompoops and boobs.

Rather than Mencken or Bierce, I wanted to find a subject whose life and ideas could not only entertain but perhaps trigger a public discussion about ideas that really matter in America today. Ideas that we don’t spend enough time talking about.

I chose to write a play about Robert Green Ingersoll.

Now that you are no longer self-conscious or self-absorbed teenagers, I’m going to give you a chance to demonstrate this publically. So raise your hands: how many of you have no idea who Robert Green Ingersoll is?

If you were to take a poll anytime during the Gilded Age, from let’s say 1875 to the turn of the century, to identify ten of America’s most respected, influential, popular, intelligent, and gifted public figures, Ingersoll’s name would surely make the list.

He has been considered not only that era’s finest public speaker, but perhaps the greatest orator in all of American history. In an age when public oratory was a major source of entertainment and education, Colonel Bob as he was affectionately called, was the undisputed king.

He once caused the Chicago police to spring into action when 50,000 people crowded to hear him speak at the city’s largest auditorium which held only 10,000.  Mark Twain said he sounded like the voice of God and Oscar Wilde called him “the most intelligent man in America.”

So why has this man drifted into the land of the forgotten? As always, probably because of a convergence of events, but always at the center is this one simple fact. Robert Ingersoll was a proud and publically vocal agnostic. He despised orthodox religion and America doesn’t take well to infidels.

He would have proudly claimed any of the following descriptors: freethinker, secularist, infidel, humanist, rationalist, or non-believer. In fact the only descriptor he objected to was atheist. He was rational enough to know that atheists have no more knowledge that God does not exist than theists have that he does.

Over the years, millions of Americans, many of them, maybe even most of them committed religious believers, flocked to hear his lectures.

It’s been said that prior to the inventions of the phonograph and radio, more Americans heard the voice of Robert Ingersoll than other person in history. As a result of their 50 cents or dollar admissions, the Colonel became quite wealthy – living sumptuously in LafayettePark across the street from the White House (where he was a regular guest) and on Fifth Avenue and GramercyPark in Manhattan.

Among his closest friends and visitors were Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Lucretia Mott, and Mark Twain. He delivered the eulogy at his friend Walt Whitman’s funeral. A number of current commentators think that had he been willing to give up his public agnosticism, he could have been President of the United States.

That was one of the angles that interested me about Ingersoll. That he would not change his core beliefs in order to improve his electability. Do we have any public figures today with enough integrity to run for elective office while personally holding a minority opinion on an important topic? Just think of it: My fellow Americans, I’m Winston Claghorne and I think as a rule gun lovers suffer from sexual inadequacy syndrome and I’d like to be your President.  Instead we have people like Mitt Romney who proudly relates that he actually did pull a trigger on several occasions – “Varmints, mostly.”

I’d like to read you some selections from Ingersoll’s speeches today.

Some of the selections I’ve used in my play, which by the way is entitled “Colonel of Reason”. (He was called Colonel because of his heroic actions with his Illinois regiment at the Battle of Shiloh.  

The challenge I faced was in choosing the right passages and editing and crafting them to entertain today’s theater audiences while still maintaining the real Ingersoll. Time will tell if I’ve been successful. If I haven’t been, I’ll be back here next year speaking to the alumni of the Acme School of Beauty and Fashion. The other challenge, if we’re lucky enough to get a production, is finding an actor who can recreate a voice that was often called “magical”, “angelic”, and “thrilling”.

Ingersoll spoke both eloquently and humorously about ideas that we are still dealing with today: Is America a Christian nation? Is God present in the Constitution? Is there a God? Is he actively involved in the world?  Is religion the foundation for morality? Can non-believers be moral? Which is superior, faith or reason? What should we do when faith and science are in conflict?

(By the way, if you’re offended by some of these passages and want to leave, you won’t be hurting my feelings. I’ll just assume there was a problem with the food and you’re all going to the bathroom.)

Rather than focus on what Ingersoll opposed, I’d rather begin with what he valued most – reason and the freedom to think – unrestrained by religious superstition and dogma. Here are some :

He says:

  • I believe in the gospel of Intelligence. That is the only lever capable of raising mankind. Intelligence must be the savior of this world. Humanity is the grand religion, and no God can put a man in hell in another world, who has made a little heaven in this. God cannot make a man miserable if that man has made somebody else happy. God cannot hate anybody who is capable of loving anybody. Humanity — that word embraces all there is.
  • The mechanic, when a wheel refuses to turn, never thinks of dropping on his knees and asking the assistance of some divine power. He knows there is a reason. He knows that something is too large or too small; that there is something wrong with his machine; and he goes to work and he makes it larger or smaller, here or there, until the wheel will turn.
  • The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave, and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow-men.

On the question of the existence of God, Ingersoll says:

  • Now, understand me! I do not say there is no God. I do not know. I have traveled but very little — only in this world. I want it understood that I do not pretend to know. I say I think.
  • Intelligent people know that no one knows whether there is a God or not. The existence of such a Being is merely a matter of opinion.
  • If there be an infinite Being – and it is a question I know nothing about – you would be perfectly astonished to know how little I do know on that subject, and yet I know as much as the aggregated world knows.
  • No human being has brain enough, or knowledge enough, or experience enough, to say whether there is, or is not, a God. Into this darkness Science has not yet carried its torch.

We’ve heard quite a bit from the religious right over the last decade about intelligent design.  It has become the default position for Christian fundamentalists who haven’t been successful shoe-horning creationism into high school science curriculums. On that subject, Ingersoll told this story:

  • A devout clergyman sought every opportunity to impress upon the mind of his son the fact that God takes care of all his creatures.

               Happening, one day, to see a crane wading in quest of food, the good man pointed out to his son the perfect adaptation of the crane to get  his living in that manner.

“See,” he said, “how his legs are formed for wading! What a long slender bill he has! Observe how nicely he folds his feet when putting them in or drawing them out of the water! He does not cause the slightest ripple. He is thus enabled to approach the fish without giving them any notice of his arrival.”

               “My son,”  said he, “it is impossible to look at that bird without recognizing the design, as well as the goodness of God, in thus providing the means of subsistence.”

“Yes”, replied the boy, “I think I see the goodness of God, at least so far as the crane is concerned. But after all, father, don’t you think the arrangement a little tough on the fish?”

One of the reasons for the Colonel’s wide popularity was his sense of humor, kind of a Gilded Age stand-up not unlike his friend Sam Clemens. One of my favorites was a story he tells about a woman who objected to his debunking of Satan.

  • “The old lady said their must be a devil, else how could they make pictures that looked exactly like him? Reasoned like a trained theologian,” he said. “Like a doctor of divinity”.
  • It is told that the great Michelangelo, in decorating a church, painted some angels wearing sandals. A cardinal looking at the picture said to the artist: “Whoever saw angels with sandals?” Michelangelo answered with another question: “Whoever saw an angel barefooted?”

On belief in prayer he said,

  • “It may be that ministers really think that their prayers do good and it may be that frogs imagine that their croaking brings spring… Ministers don’t know much but they believe a great deal.”

On heaven he says,

  • I cannot see why we should expect an infinite God to do better in another world than he does in this. And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?

In one of the key scenes in the 2nd act, Ingersoll finds himself on stage in a public debate with one the era’s most influential ministers, Thomas deWitt Talmage. Talmage was the Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell of that era. He condemns Ingersoll’s humanism and places God as Supreme Power of the universe, independent and superior to nature, controlling it to satisfy His divine plan.

Ingersoll responds,

  • Divine plan? Thanks to the genius of Charles Darwin we now know that there is none. Nature is without passion and without intention. It forms, transforms, and retransforms forever. She neither weeps nor rejoices.
  • She produces man without purpose, and obliterates him without regret. She knows no distinction between the beneficial and the hurtful. She is neither merciful not cruel. She cannot be flattered by worship nor melted by tears.
  • We have explored her by telescope and microscope. And everywhere we find the infinite. In every direction man has investigated, and nowhere, in earth or stars, has been found the footsteps of any being superior to or independent of nature. What we have found are the laws of nature.

We hear over and over today from certain factions the argument that America is a Christian nation and that God is found in the Constitution. This is not a new claim. Talmage made it against Ingersoll. Here is Ingersoll’s response:

  • Mr. Talmage, our civilization is not Christian. It does not come from the skies. It is not a result of divine inspiration. It is the child of invention, of discovery, of applied knowledge – that is to say, of science.
  • When man becomes great and grand enough to admit that all have equal rights; when thought is untrammeled; when worship shall consist of doing useful things; when religion means the discharge of obligations to our fellow men, then, and not until then, will the world be civilized.
  • The church in all ages and among all peoples has been the consistent enemy of the human race. Everywhere and at all times it has opposed the liberty of thought and expression. It has been the sworn enemy of investigation and intellectual development.
  • No sir, the liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church.
  • As to us being a Christian nation, everything we stand for, my good sir, is found in the Declaration of Independence not in your ancient collection of bad precepts, absurd rules, and cruel laws.
  • The Declaration is the grandest, the bravest, the most profound political document ever written. And the reason this is so is because it speaks the sublime truth – that all power comes from the people. Not a god, Mr. Talmage, the people.
  • The Government of the United States is secular. It derives its power from the consent of man. It is a Government in which God had nothing whatever to do. Our Founders had the wisdom to finally declare null and void that infamous dogma that God confers on one man the power to govern others. It was a notice to all churches and priests that thereafter mankind would govern and protect themselves. No, one hundred years ago our fathers retired the gods from politics.

Ingersoll was a protector of liberty and the rights of women were a major concern to him. Not surprisingly he finds the origins of women’s secondary status in society in the Bible and the teachings of the church. Here’s what he has to say:

  • Ladies and gentlemen, the men who declare that woman is the intellectual inferior to man cannot substantiate their declaration, certainly not by offering themselves as evidence. Women have simply been declared inferior by men, most powerfully by men in priestly robes.
  • The parasite of woman is the church.
  • The Bible is not the friend of woman. The writers of that book, for the most part, speak of woman as a poor beast of burden, a serf, a drudge, a source of evil – as mere property. Most women cling to the Bible because they have been taught that to give up that book is to give up all hope of a better life, of ever meeting again the loved and lost. They have also been taught that the Bible is their friend, their defender, and the real civilizer of man. It is not so.
  • As long as women regard the Bible as the charter of her rights, they will be the slave of men. The Bible was not written by a woman. Within its covers there is nothing but humiliation and shame for her. They must read the Bible with open eyes so that the mist of sentimentality has not clouded their vision. They must have the courage to tell the results of their investigations , discover contradictions, protest against the cruel, reject the childish, the unnatural and absurd.
  • In the ignorant age of faith, the loving nature of woman was abused. Her conscience was rendered morbid and diseased. It might also be said that she was betrayed by her own virtues. At best she secured, not opportunity, but flattery – the preface to degradation.
  • Woman was deprived of liberty, and without that, nothing is worth the having. She was taught to obey without question, and to believe without thought. There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women. At the intellecual feast, there were no places for wives and mothers.

On a positive note, here’s a statement by Ingersoll that I think is no longer the case:

  • Even now they sit at the second table and eat the crusts and crumbs. The schools for women at the present time, are just far enough behind those for men, to fall heirs to the discarded; on the same principle that when a doctrine becomes too absurd for the pulpit, it is given to the Sunday School.

Fortunately for all of us, this latter is no longer true. I can tell you from my experience of 40 years in the classroom that the role of women has been transformed and transforms education.

This is graduation season. Note how many valedictorians are women. On average, the top ten graduates consist of 7 or 8 women. Within the classroom, it is the women who assume intellectual leadership while too many young men remain docile and incurious, perhaps counting on the world to raise them up later to the positions they think they rightly deserve. They are in for a big surprise. These gender entitlements have largely faded and we are better off for it.

In closing, there are two thoughts I’d like to add. The first is the simple creed by which Robert Ingersoll lived his life:

            Happiness is the only good.      

            The place to be happy is here.

            The time to be happy is now.

            And the way to be happy is to make others so.


And finally I’d like to say, Robert Green Ingersoll’s wisdom needs to be rediscovered today. We are all witnesses to the potential dangers, both here and abroad, of religious fundamentalists and their theocratic impulses; ; by the continued suppression of women, the most powerful, untapped force for good in the world; the dumbing down of our children in schools by the substitution of fables and superstitions for hard, true science; and the kidnapping of our secular founding documents by rabid political and religious extremists who have no more knowledge of their nation’s history than they do of the natural laws that control our universe.

Thank you for having me here today.